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    Entries in Spiritual Formation (36)


    Ancient Practices and the Porous Self

    In a 2008 article written for First Things, Alan Jacobs turns his attention toward Hugh Halter, Matt Smay, Brian McLaren, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, examining contemporary authors in Christianity that harken back within their published works to an "ancient faith."  In the three books linked above, each author turns the attention of the reader to the past, and in one way or another seeks to reclaim some old facet of the Christian Tradition they believe has been lost.  Having read McLaren and Wilson-Hartgrove, I was intrigued.  Like many reformers of old, I too have longed for a re-emergence of Christian faith as it has been expressed and lived in the past, a purer, even "mythic" faith that taps into that same energy discovered and exploding forth from the pages of the New Testament.

    I first encountered this article, entitled "Do-It-Yourself Tradition," in Jacobs' collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant.  This selection is an excellent critique of contemporary popular writing that attempts to point us back to the past.  Jacobs exposes critiques of the church that are too simplistic, outlandish, and historically ill-founded (and not exclusive to the authors cited above), while calling the reader to a deeper, more analytic and theologically well grounded attempt to forge a way forward for the contemporary church.  Jacobs calls his reader to be more daring, more brash in their attempts to re-enliven Christianity.  A tweak here, a tweak there, a practice now and again with a dash of spiritual razzmatazz won't do.

    You can read the article here.  As he reaches the end of his argument, Jacobs interjects a small amount of contemporary cultural and philosophical analysis that may be the greatest contribution given therein.  In his concluding remarks, Jacobs states:

    The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa—that can be illuminated by God—may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.

    The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we'd rather remain within our buffers—if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies—from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads—may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

    While I have spoken often of the spiritual disciplines as "tools," Jacobs posits that they are indeed much more.  I think he is right.  I also think he is right to point to the changing existential dynamic that may be taking place--the reinsertion of the porous self--within history.

    If Jacobs is right, and the current technological conditions are opening avenues for the reestablishment of mystery and deep spirituality alongside the minimization of those "buffers" we place around ourselves to insulate us from transformative spiritual fanaticism, a new day may be dawning before us.  Jacobs is then right to see ancient Christian practices as "an indispensible source of hope" and "the hope of life to those who are perishing."  He is right to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre's observation that we may need a new St. Benedict.

    The project of "new creation" is larger than we have imagined.

    As conversations continue regarding the future of the faith, between myself and colleagues and friends across denominations and non-denominations, we are in need of honest historical reflection concerning where we stand, as well as sound, well-informed philosophical and theological reflection that can set us on a truthful trajectory toward the fullness of the Kingdom coming.  Along the way, we'll also need practitioners--pastors and church leaders--for the outcome of our ruminations cannot remain in the abstract, if we are to truly see a renewed and more hopeful Christianity.


    Common Language, Common Faith

    This isn't a youth ministry blog, per se, but over the years I have had the bulk of my ministry experiences within the crucible of children and youth ministries, working diligently to teach, exhort, rebuke, correct, and train children in the way of Jesus as revealed in the Bible.  The work has always been tough, and also fun.  It has been fun to be around the young, listening to their questions, playing their games, reading together and striving to understand the Scripture and what God might be saying.  I've never felt called specifically to youth or children's ministry, but I have been incredibly blessed as I have pursued my calling among youth and children.  I don't think you have to be called to those areas to be engaged in ministry in those areas; oftentimes our dismissals of these opportunities to be around children and youth have much more to do with our insecurities and our preferences than they do our abilities and our proclivities for guiding others in the way of the Kingdom.  Many of my greatest insights have come in conversation with a teenager or a two year old.  I've received more grace from the young than from any other segment of the church.

    Over the years, I have noticed that one of the challenges currently facing children's and youth ministries is the lack of a common language for following Jesus, and thus the establishment of a commonly understood faith.  Oftentimes our youth ministries are driven by a hype and happenstance, marketing married to therapeutic or avoidance strategies for common teenage ills.  We speak to youth and children in terms of revolution, in order to stir zeal and build excitement about the faith.  We legitimize this by saying that if we do not do this, then other cultural forces will, and the assumption is that we will then lose.  We then speak to adults with well formulated principles that will help us live "good lives," which commonly reflects middle-class sensibilities, and the epitome of what might be called the American way of life.  In one sector, we want people who will turn the world upside down.  In another, we want people who will settle in as good Christians, be nice, etc.  No wonder the young, who hang with us, feel as though they are aliens when they reach maturity.  Classic bait and switch.

    How might this be overcome?  Is it possible to have a consistent, clear, and unified approach to being a disciple of Jesus that can transcend the categories of age?

    Some of you reading this will reply that the answer here is undeniably yes.  I'm working on a way to bring this to bear on our ministry.  I'm exploring a way to talk about Kingdom and Christ and the Bible and the whole lot in a way that children and parents can talk to and with one another about their journeys as Christians, finding continuity and dreaming together of what a common vision might be as they live their life together as a small outpost of Kingdom living.  Rather than fostering division and layering our discourse, I'm trying to imagine what it would be like for us to minister to parents and their children together, so that they might have common ground, while all the while recognizing developmental and life stage difficulties that will continue to keep them distinct.

    Do you know of anyone who is doing this well?


    Awesome Time at Barclay College

    This week I was a guest at Barclay College, and had the opportunity to speak to the student body twice in chapel and once as part of Dave Kingrey's Systematic Theology class.  April 5-7 has marked Barclay's Spiritual Formation Conference, centered on the theme, "It's all Good."  Jimmy Taylor spoke this morning in chapel, focusing on "The Good and Beautiful Community."  I had an incredible visit to Haviland, Kansas, which is a small prairie town along Highway 54 west of Wichita.  Dave Williams, the college chaplain, received me very graciously, introduced me to a broad range of people, and made sure my experience was in line with the best of Christian hospitality.  I connected with a few students via Twitter, who were quick to make fun of me as soon as I revealed my handle, and I had numerous other good conversations with students on campus as well.

    You can listen to my talks either via a live stream at the Barclay Chapel website (direct link: April 5, April 6 - had trouble accessing these on my Mac, worked fine with my PC), or via the links for download below (right-click and select "Download Linked File As..." to obtain the file).

    Thanks to those at Barclay for hosting me graciously.  I pray that the student body and the faculty was blessed as I was.


    Check Out The Apprentice Series

    I work with a great team of people who want people to follow Jesus.  A great deal of the vision and the groundwork for our group is a credit to Jim Smith.  Jim has written three books that have been released over the last year plus that many people have found to be very powerful.  I'd encourage you to check them out.

    Just this week a friend of mine posted an awesome testimonial on her Twitter feed.

    If you'd like to learn more about spiritual formation and what we're trying to accomplish with The Apprentice Series, visit the website.  If you'd like to partner with us, and with the Aprentis Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation at Friends University, click on the link.  There are many ways churches could partner with our team to learn more about Apprentice and to introduce this vision for following Jesus within the context of different ministries.


    Book Review :: Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey (The Ancient Practices Series)

    Pilgrimage is a concept seldom reflected upon within modern Christian discourse, particularly for Western, evangelical, Protestant types, which represents myself and countless readers of this weblog.  With all the emphasis on journey as a metaphor for the life of faith, there isn't much of a charge for us to go anywhere.  Rather, we are told that following Jesus should result in a transformation of the heart that can be chronicled much like a choose-your-own-stay-at-home adventure, even if the setting and backdrop remain static, and the only challenges that emerge are those common to life in suburbia.  The mountains to traverse, the trails to walk, the streams to observe, and the dark monsters we face reside only in our imagination.  Wilderness wanderings, like those of the ancient Hebrews, are things we read about in the travelogue that is our Bible, not the stuff of our lived experience.

    Though rarely addressed, pilgrimage is no less important.  That is why Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey is such an insightful and helpful read.  Foster describes the practice of the transformative movement from here to there.  He invokes the importance within the Christian tradition of sacred, or thin, places, places wherein we pray or experience God more poignantly, more precisely, and that there is value in physically visiting a site possessing a history, a place imbued with spiritual significance long before we arrived on the scene that is likely to endure long after we have gone.  His book testifies powerfully to the physicality of our existence, the embodiment of our faith, and the deep connections that exist between earthly and heavenly realities.

    The final installment in The Ancient Practices Series, Foster's contribution stands above a number of the other volumes for quality of prose and readability.  It is a blessing to read a volume that delights, and this is one.  However, there were elements I found contentious; for example, if I were to sit down with Foster, I would debate with him at length God's preference for the pilgrim and disdain for those who settle.  I would point out that cities themselves serve a purpose in God's economy, and while God may do much formative work in the wilderness, refining the character of a people, God also establishes a land wherein cities might spring up, serving the purposes of government, justice, and oversight for those who reside within God's community.  Cities are places wherein culture is developed and produced, either for God's glory or for the denigration of the human race.  Cities are places where God can work just as mightily for the transformation of a people as God can in the rough and tumble of the wilderness.

    In addition to my critique of Foster's claim that God hates the city (with the exception of one reversal at the conclusion of Revelation), I also found myself unsettled by the frequent invocation of the writings and insights of other religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in his account of the pilgrimage.  While I agree with Foster that there are numerous parallels between Christian and other conceptions of the value and purpose of the journey for the life of faith, I questioned why Foster could not put those accounts aside for the sake of constructing a distinctly Christian account of formation by way of the pilgrimage.  This is an overall critique of the series, not only of Foster.  With the exception of Scot McKnight's volume on fasting, many of the works in The Ancient Practices Series made certain to demonstrate that none of these practices are exclusively Christian.  However, unlike McKnight, other contributors to the Series did not make a strong enough case for the difference practicing these disciplines or exercises (biblically, theologically, or otherwise) makes when observed in a particularly Christian way.  There was not enough done to establish what difference these practices make for the Christian in distinction from the "spiritual person."  This does not mean that I did not find the work done by Foster and others to be of value.  However, it does mean that I thought that these volumes could have offered an even greater value to the Christian community, and, thus, I think that a greater opportunity may have been lost.

    I'd recommend reading The Sacred Journey.  Even when placing my critiques aside, Foster's writings made me want to go somewhere, and wherever it was that I would be going, my desire was to go there with Jesus.

    DISCLAIMER: I received this book as a participant in the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze program, meaning, I got it for free in exchange for a review. If I love the book, I will say so. If I hate it, I will say so. Free is nice. But programs like this give books away for free to generate conversation, and I'm glad to help generate some buzz.

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